Henry Byous was incarcerated from 2011 to 2013 in Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola prison, or the Alcatraz of the south, for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
Byous was selected to participate in the Orleans Parish Re-entry Workforce Development program, which offered vocational training for non-violent drug offenders. The program allowed him to become a certified electrician and obtain 15 other life skills certifications. Yet, Byous said finding work and managing life after release was a challenge because of his record.
“To have my record scraped, where no one is able to judge me by that record, I would love that,” said Byous, now a father of three and owner of a small business in New Orleans.
The question of whether to automatically expunge the records of people with marijuana-related convictions remains a central facet of the legalization conversation in cities and states where weed has been decriminalized. Expunging records may seem like a natural step when legalizing a formerly prohibited activity, but opponents of expungement counter that since the offense was illegal at the time it was committed, it should remain.
New York is taking some steps toward expunging marijuana-related convictions. A 2019 law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo will seal the convictions of more than 150,000 people with marijuana-related convictions, some of which date back to the 70s, and nearly 25,000 of those records will be permanently erased. This law will seal all marijuana-related convictions, but sealing does not equal complete expungement, which still requires petitioning the courts. While sealing records can be helpful for people with marijuana-related convictions, expungement remains the ultimate goal of many organizers, activists, and formerly incarcerated people themselves.